Blue Ridge Bound

Day 1: I began the day by scraping frost off the windshield, but then enjoyed the sun rising over the mountains and the North Fork Moormans.  It was surprising to find this trout stream in Shenandoah National Park as low as it was. I was expecting more water, but the area was obviously in a drought or, more precisely, recovering from a very dry season. In six years of spring and autumn fishing on this Blue Ridge stream, I had never seen it this low.

Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t scheduled until dark, so I had time for a leisurely 5-mile walk into the mountains. I encountered only a few hikers and no anglers whatsoever. Casting with my old buddy, Chester the Virginia fly rod, I stalked whatever pools still looked deep enough to hold a native trout, and took in a bit of scenery that included birds such as a red-shouldered hawk and several winter wrens.

The hike through the colorful mountains was enjoyable but the fishing was as difficult as any outing that I’ve had this year. The water was clear and cold; the sun was bright and pleasant. It was hard to keep my shadow off the water.  All that came to me were a handful of trout, a few small ones on a dry fly and another native on a wet.

As always, it was time for thanks, for trout and wildness, and especially for family, friends and readers of this blog.

Day 2: It might be “Black Friday” but the Rapidan River looked bright and anything but commercial. It looked great, as one might expect a premier brook trout river to appear. Compared to yesterday’s North Fork, the Rapidan was full-flowing and attractive with deep-water pockets and boulder-sided pools. It wasn’t long, however, till I felt that something was amiss. Casting nymphs (and even a few dry flies) to the cold 41 degree water, I caught nothing.

Checking on favorite old pools, I fished upstream for several miles into the Blue Ridge wilderness before I finally caught a brook trout. With such promising water, why was fishing so slow? Sure, the bright sun wasn’t helping matters, but I worked like hell to keep off the water and to limit the effect of shadows there.

I had a similar experience here one year ago. The fishing was great but the catching was lousy. The previous summer had been hot and dry. The trout could have swum far upstream in pursuit of cooler water temperatures. Again, this past summer was a dry one, and the brookies may have migrated higher into the mountains.

If I’m correct, then the snow-melt and the rains of spring will flush the wild trout to the middle and lower elevations of the Rapidan where I’m accustomed to find them. I don’t know if this theory of trout migration holds water or not, but I’m interested in hearing the opinion of others.

Day 3: White Oak Canyon Run is not the kind of place you visit if you’re into solitude, but the theme for this outing was family, and fly-fishing was kind of a sideline activity. Despite the high level of foot-traffic on the trail adjacent to the stream, our extended family enjoyed a pleasant hike. I took Chester the fly rod into the stream at various points to test the brook trout theory I’d been developing over the previous couple of days.

White Oak Canyon Run is a stairway stream with a gradient so steep that you can walk upstream and approach most pools at head level. You peek around a group of boulders and cast without much worry that the trout will see you. White Oak Run, unlike the North Fork and Rapidan, has numerous waterfalls and won’t allow the trout to migrate far if drought and high water temps afflict it.

It seemed the perfect stream to test my theory. If fish hadn’t migrated toward the headwaters, they’d be here as I found them on my previous visit in spring.

The sky cooperated by clouding over as we made our way along the trail. But White Oak Canyon Run, aside from a few expansive pools, seemed like the North Fork Moormans– low and clear. And no trout came to hand.

To make a long story short, I shot my theory full of holes. Who knows what was going on with the trout. Oh, I saw a couple. One trout rose to a dry fly but didn’t stay hooked. Another one hid beneath a rock the moment the small fly hit the water.

Mystery resumed its rightful role in fly-fishing. I declared that the pursuit was dead (for now). I hastened to add,  “Long live the pursuit of beauty. Long live casting with a fly!”

Streamwalker, done with theorizing…photo by Brent “Bridging the Gap” Franklin

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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20 Responses to Blue Ridge Bound

  1. Brent says:

    What a great photo in there–catching a non-native fisher mid-stream, south of its traditional northern habitat. I guess you’ll just have to come back in the spring and test your theory from another angle!

  2. plaidcamper says:

    Thanks for sharing the wonder of those Blue Ridge streams and trails, Walt. The fishing might not have been all you hoped for, but everything else, including the mystery of outdoor spaces, must have felt pretty good. I’m betting you’ll get Chester back down there again…

  3. Yessir, PC; it’s too late to stop now. We’ll be back and probably doin’ some more theorizing, too. Who knows. But thank you, and hope you’re enjoying a nice pre-winter season!

  4. John says:

    Always look forward to your fly fishing adventures in Virginia, this looks an awesome stretch of fishing, even if the bites were few.

  5. I’ve found that the transition of seasons makes for a few weird weeks of fishing in the mid atlantic. This year, after the late summer, it seems that you hit the “weird weeks” just right.

    Enjoy the rest of your trip!

    • Thanks Matthew. You’re probably right about this, although I wish I knew more about the constitution of these “weird weeks.” I’ve fished these streams some years in late November and had excellent fishing, and then fished them others, like the past two, where I’ve found the casting to be plenty odd.

  6. Bob Stanton says:

    We fly fishers are natural-born theorizers, aren’t we? Just when we think we’ve got it figured out, along comes reality (and a few trout) to shoot us down. But, that’s why I keep coming back, among other reasons. The environs are always beautiful, fish or no.

  7. loydtruss says:

    I don’t know if this theory is accurate where you were fishing but I’ve always landed more fish 3 days before and 3 days after full moon, of course I’ve only applied this theory to the warm waters I’ve fished. The trout in the Sipsey in Alabama I’ve fished for would have lock jaw at times. What was so frustrating was I could see the trout and no amount of fly patterns would attract a take; after returning a couple of days later the trout would take most of the patterns they refused on previous days—–trying to decipher a trout’s feeding habits and landing them is what makes this sport so awesome!!!
    Beautiful streams you were fishing even if the bite was slow—thanks for sharing

    • Bill,
      You’re right in that trying to decipher a trout’s feeding habits and then landing it is rewarding (when it works in our favor, at least). I don’t know about a moon’s influence although I’m sure that there are natural forces working that are well beyond our comprehension. In this case, it wasn’t so much a matter of visible trout refusing all offers; it just seemed as though they were mostly absent from the scene. Perplexing but, as you say, the real pleasure comes from being out there in the first place.

  8. JZ says:

    I’ve come to believe Walt that there is no cold hard facts in fishing for trout. You lean on what has served you well in past experiences. Certainly, local patterns work better on regional waters than some others. But practice always gets you closer to the fish. No other way to practice than to fish. In more dry years and hotter months, fish will move to colder areas. It is instrumental to there survival. Biologists who study such behavior have determined this. However, there reports also have acknowledged that underground cold springs, deeper holes, shade, capacity and circumstance determine behavior as well. Your lack of success in catching trout Walt isn’t your willingness of not trying. Your outlook on just being there and enjoying those moments outdoors is what really counts. That is why I love your posts. Walt, your passion for those waters are bigger than any fish you could net. On the other hand, the fish were probably just camera shy for you. That’s probably it…(smile)

    • I agree with you, JZ; there are no cold hard facts in this business, and that’s what makes it fun. If everything could be figured scientifically then it wouldn’t be worth the effort; in fact, there wouldn’t even be a “sport.” That said, practice and experience gets us closer to the truth of it all. Passion helps, of course, and I appreciate your recognition of it, many times over. Thank you for helping me acknowledge, once again, that reporting on these outings is worth the effort.

  9. Ross says:

    While the catching may not have been all that you hoped for, the fishing & exploring looked wonderful. Enjoy your time south Walt.

  10. What a great post Walt. One area of the country that I haven’t experienced so I’m going to have to keep coming back to get more because it’s lovely. Someone is also doing a bang up job with the camera!

  11. Mike says:

    My theory (well, my fear) is much more pessimistic. We had an extremely dry spring/summer in the areas you’re fishing this year. Many of the normally good trout streams in SNP were barely trickles in August/September. Frankly, I would still consider most of the streams to be “low” for late fall conditions.

    I’m concerned that the combination of low water and predators significantly reduced fish populations. I guess we won’t really know until spring. If we find that we can’t catch a fish on every other cast once the Quill Gordon hatches start in the spring it might be a slow year.

  12. Mike,
    Thanks for your input on this. As someone who sounds more familiar with the Blue Ridge streams in Shenandoah than I am (living in NYS), you have a stronger knowledge of the past summer stream conditions and the issue of predation and water quality. What you are suggesting is a very real possibility, one that I’ve considered as well, but have hoped is not the case. I experienced similar fishing results a year ago in November, worried about low numbers but was pleased to find that trout seemed fairly abundant in the spring of 2017. The situation is a bit perplexing and, as you say, we’ll have to wait till spring’s Quill Gordon hatch to further test the waters.

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